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KDKA, WPXI, WTAE are neck and neck in the news ratings race

Thursday, December 04, 2003

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The November sweeps Nielsen ratings released last week revealed nothing particularly new about the state of TV news rankings in Pittsburgh. Every station could crow about its performance in some time period and try to spin its way out of lackluster ratings elsewhere.

Online Graphic:
TV News Ratings
See a chart showing how Pittsburgh TV news programs KDKA, WTAE and WPXI rank against each other.



That snapshot of a single sweeps month shows a tight ratings race, but a look at year-to-date ratings shows the competition to be even closer.

In year-to-date ratings, there are ties between stations for first place at 5 p.m., second place at 4 p.m., and one-tenth of a ratings point separates the No. 1 and No. 2 stations at 6 a.m.

Many variables to assess

So what influences ratings? Many, many variables. In sweeps, additional promotions -- including radio spots -- often are used to entice viewers along with special reports and, on some stations, contests in which viewers are encouraged to watch newscasts for a chance to win money.

"If you're asking people to watch you year round but you augment that during a sweeps period with additional messages over and over again, you're going to have a larger audience," said WPXI general manager Ray Carter. "Contesting might help bring attention to a station that wouldn't normally get it, but to keep viewers, you have to have the content. It can't just be a message about contesting. You have to do it with an image campaign throughout the year."

All ratings provided by Nielsen Media Research are household ratings that reflect more a measure of popularity than a basis for ad rates. TV commercials are generally sold on demographic ratings.

July is a sweeps month, and in Pittsburgh ratings books are also published for January and October. But because stations do not put an emphasis on competition in these three months -- no strong emphasis on promotions, special reports or contests -- they were tallied with non-sweeps months (see charts above).

Karen Gyimesi, vice president of marketing communications for Nielsen, said she can't prove any of the stations' gimmicks influence ratings.

"But I think the stations are under that impression," she said. "That's why I think a lot of stations may want to save special news analyses or reports for the sweeps period."

In its ratings book, Nielsen flags contests, including those during early evening newscasts on WPXI in February, May and November and on WTAE in May and November, because they can influence ratings.

"We just like to make the advertiser aware of it in case there is some unusual growth or anomaly in the ratings," Gyimesi said. "Our clients have asked us to keep track of that more. People are under the impression that [contests] may influence viewing in some way, but I really have not seen anything that shows that it does. It may fluctuate market-to-market, station-to-station."

She said Nielsen does not view contests as a form of cheating.

KDKA, which has a promotional partnership with the Post-Gazette, has long maintained that contests skew the ratings. General manager Gary Cozen cited guidelines by Nielsen and the American Association of Advertising Agencies that discourage the use of contests, and he said contests differ from other strategies because they are singled out for condemnation by both organizations.

"Sweeps periods are used to provide advertising agencies a means of projecting viewership throughout the year, and when stations engage in practices that distort normal viewing patterns, the integrity of those sweeps ratings is highly compromised," Cozen said. "Pittsburgh is the one place in the country where contests are being practiced consistently during every major sweeps because they yield such effective results at manipulating the ratings, especially the ratings that are derived between 4 and 6:30 p.m."

Contests at 5 p.m. can spike ratings, which then deliver a larger lead-in audience to the 6 p.m. news.

Still, contests are not the sole factor pumping up ratings. KDKA, which does not do contests, also has higher average ratings in sweeps than in non-sweeps months for every news time slot except 5 p.m.

John Harpur, senior vice president/corporate media development at local ad agency MARC USA, said WTAE got higher-than-normal ratings for "Oprah" last month by offering a contest.

"To a large extent we feel that was bought by way of the contesting they did," Harpur said. "At the same time, Oprah and her programmers saved some of their best stuff to run in sweeps, but to go up [four] share points [from the October ratings] like that just off program stunting is pretty extraordinary."

Harpur called contests a dirty tactic and "an impudent affront to a large part of their customer constituency, which is their advertisers."

WTAE general manager Rick Henry would not comment for this story, but WPXI's Carter dismissed the notion that contests are anything more than one of many strategies stations can choose to employ.

"Strategy is strategy. No TV station is going to have one arrow in their quiver. ... This is not a situation where you could call out one particular strategy and cry foul. If someone were breaking the rules, doing something unethical, that would be one thing. But since no one in this market is doing that, it's become a tired argument."

In sweeps, ratings rise most noticeably at 4 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. In the morning and at noon, ratings rise between non-sweeps and sweeps months, but usually by less than one full ratings point. But at 4 p.m., WTAE's average jumps almost two points. At 5 p.m., WPXI is up by more than one point.

Contests are likely responsible for at least some of the jump in ratings, but almost no contesting goes on at 11 p.m., which also shows marked increases from non-sweeps to sweeps months. That's probably due to an abundance of original series episodes and special prime-time network programming, another strategy that helps boost late news numbers.

The strength of CBS's prime-time lineup this past year helped boost KDKA by more than a full point at 11 p.m., and even WTAE, coming off usually lower-rated ABC lead-ins, jumped by more than a full point in sweeps vs. non-sweeps months.

Looking at ratings on a month-by-month basis and combining them for a year-to-date average also reveals the influence of weather on news viewership. All local stations had their lowest ratings during the summer, particularly July and August.

WPXI's Carter said shorter days in the winter mean more people watching television. Longer days in the summer make it less likely that people will tune in.

"You can almost gauge what the audience is going to be like by looking at the weather outside," Carter said. "If it's a cold or severe weather day and not a lot of other news is going on, [viewership] might be a little higher, but not much. If you get a combination of foul weather and a heavy news day, Pittsburgh watches television."

The year-to-date view also shows a ratings decline for WPGH's 10 p.m. news in the second half of the year. WPGH went to a News Central format that imports national and international news and weather from a central studio in suburban Baltimore in late May.

Prior to the switch in the first five months of the year, the first half-hour of WPGH's newscast averaged a 4.4 rating (percentage of TV households) and a 6 share (percentage of TV sets in use). In the six months since, the station has averaged a 3.2/5 with the numbers declining as time goes on. WNPA's 10 p.m. newscast, produced by KDKA, did not benefit from the decline in WPGH viewership.

TV Editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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